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Pelosi, Mnuchin continue COVID-19 talks amid dwindling odds for deal

The top negotiators fighting for a deal on emergency coronavirus relief spoke again on Wednesday as they face increasingly dismal odds to secure an agreement before Election Day.

The hourlong phone call between Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was a “productive” one, according to Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill, citing a focused effort to find “clarification on language” — a reference to assurances sought by Democrats that new funding allocated by Congress will be spent on intended programs.

But a deal remains a long shot, as Democrats have held firm to their $2.2 trillion demand; Senate Republicans have balked at even the $1.8 trillion proposal from the White House; and President Trump has confused the debate with a stream of mixed messages regarding what he supports.

“One major area of disagreement continues to be that the White House lacks an understanding of the need for a national strategic testing plan,” Hammill tweeted. “The Speaker believes we must reopen our economy & schools safely & soon, & scientists agree we must have a strategic testing plan.”

Speaking at a public conference shortly after his call with Pelosi, Mnuchin noted the distinct divisions blocking a deal, emphasizing entrenched differences remain over both the amount of new spending and the policy areas it should target.

“I don’t agree with the Speaker’s approach that we have to do all or nothing,” Mnuchin said in an interview with the Milken Institute. He added that securing and executing a deal before the elections “would be difficult just given where we are and the level of detail.”

Another area of disagreement is how much aid should be extended to state and local governments, which are struggling to fund the emergency response to the pandemic while simultaneously being squeezed by a loss of tax revenue.

Democrats had proposed $436 billion in aid for those localities, while the White House countered with $300 billion. Mnuchin on Wednesday said that number marked “an extraordinary compromise” on the part of the administration, suggesting the White House is not ready to raise its offer.

Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) said Democrats are also wary of how the state and local funds are allocated. He accused Republicans of manipulating the language in earlier rounds of emergency relief to ensure that red states benefited disproportionately.

“This is one place where the details matter a lot,” Foster said on a press call. “A small town in Wyoming or Montana got, I think, five times more money than a small town in Illinois.”

Another sticking point surrounds GOP demands for language protecting businesses and schools from liability if workers or students contract the virus — a demand Mnuchin amplified Wednesday.

Democrats are insisting that those liability protections be excluded, and appear equally unyielding in that demand.

“I think that it should be a dealbreaker for us to leave it in there,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). “We have to make sure that there is some accountability for safety of workers. And right now, that’s now where they are.”

The persistent disagreements have diminished the chances that the sides can reach a deal before the elections. And Trump, who has remained on the sidelines during the talks, has only muddled the debate.

Since testing positive for COVID-19 at the start of the month, Trump has vacillated between urging Congress to “go big” on a relief package, ending the talks, renewing them again with calls for a piecemeal approach, and then coming full circle to back another massive package. That $1.8 trillion proposal was quickly rejected by Senate Republicans, raising questions about whether any new relief will reach Trump’s desk even if Pelosi and Mnuchin do seal a deal.

Republicans on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, have hammered Pelosi, saying the Speaker simply doesn’t want an agreement, which might help Trump’s reelection next month. Mnuchin said that concern is “definitely an issue.”

Democrats have rejected that argument, noting that they’ve already passed two separate emergency aid bills without concern for the potential benefit to Trump’s campaign. With less than three weeks before the elections, they say they’re still pushing.

“We have said to the Speaker, ‘We need to stay at the table, we need a bill,’ ” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.). “We need a bill, we need it now, we need it before Election Day.”

Tags Bill Foster Debbie Dingell Donald Trump Jan Schakowsky Nancy Pelosi Steven Mnuchin

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